Trudeau government defends its use of secret orders-in-council

·4 min read
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is being called on to explain the spike in secret orders-in-council since it was elected. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is being called on to explain the spike in secret orders-in-council since it was elected. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government is defending the sharp increase in the number of secret orders-in-council during its time in office, saying it has an obligation to protect national security.

Conservative MP Luc Berthold led off question period Thursday by quoting Trudeau's promise in 2015 to lead a transparent government.

"That is the big promise that the prime minister made to Canadians in 2015," he said. "Seven years later, that promise has melted like snow in the sun. The prime minister leads the most closed, most opaque, the most censored government that we have ever seen.

"We have just learned of the existence of 72 secret orders-in-council. Why are the Liberals so afraid to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?"

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne responded, saying the government believes in transparency but can't always reveal everything.

"I think that all of the Canadians watching us today understand that our government has always shown transparency but as I explain to my colleagues on the other side, we also have the responsibility as a government to assure national security," Champagne told the House of Commons.

"That is why, in certain circumstances, in the national interest, we will continue to be transparent at all levels but there are certain occasions where we must preserve confidentiality in the interest of the country."

Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images
Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images

He said some decisions related to foreign investment transactions are kept secret in the national interest.

The government has come under fire from opposition critics following a report by CBC News that the Trudeau government has adopted 72 secret orders-in-council.

While the Liberals criticized the Conservatives in 2015 for the number of secret OICs they had adopted over nine years, Trudeau's government has adopted more than twice as many over its six years in office.

The only indication that a secret OIC even exists is a missing number in the Privy Council's orders-in-council database. They can be used for anything from stopping a foreign company from buying a Canadian business to outlining who is authorized to give the order to shoot down a commercial airliner hijacked by terrorists.

More than half of the secret orders-in-council adopted by the Trudeau government have come in the past two years — since April 2020, a month after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Eleven have been adopted so far this year.

The revelation has prompted opposition calls for the government to be more transparent about the secret orders-in-council it has adopted and questions about why there has been such an increase in their use.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

New Democratic Party MP Matthew Green — who co-chairs a special joint committee set up to study the government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act during the convoy protest — said he plans to present a motion for the committee to call upon the government to provide it with copies of any secret orders-in-council adopted in relation to the protest.

Two secret orders-in-council were adopted during the time frame of the protest — one at the outset and the second just as police began arresting organizers and preparing a special operation to clear protesters and trucks from downtown Ottawa. The government has refused to say whether any of its secret orders-in-council are related to the protest.

"The government hasn't indicated that there were any orders under the Emergencies Act but it might be the case that there were secret orders-in-council anyways," Green said.

Green said he also has questions about how the system of secret orders-in-council is being used and why it is being used more often now than in the past.

"I don't think the legislation and the tool is being used the way that it was intended to be used. It feels like it's being abused," he said.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

The government may also be asked to turn over copies of any potential secret orders-in-council related to the convoy protest to the inquiry into the protest and the government's actions being led by Justice Paul Rouleau.

Michael Tansey, spokesperson for the inquiry, said lawyers are in talks with the government regarding access to documents but he did not say whether the inquiry will ask specifically for any secret orders-in-council.

"Commission counsel are engaging in regular conversations with government officials on document production," Tansey said. "The government has indicated that it intends to cooperate with the commission so that it can complete its work within the tight time frames it has to work with."

Tansey said the inquiry expects to receive documents from the government by the end of June.

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